Fake news: is it really all that bad?

Written by Susannah Mutton

Fake news is bad. Unless it’s about someone we hate. And then it’s funny, writes cross-channel marketing and comms strategist Susannah Mutton, in this guest blog post looking at one of the most contentious issues facing the world of online communications and trust.

On the surface fake news is a bit of a laugh. Who wouldn’t’ find it hilarious that Pope Francis supposedly endorsed Donald Trump? Yet this was the most shared story on Facebook during the final three months of Trump’s campaign. And, even though the Pope personally refuted the story, Trump is now president of the most powerful country in the world.

So apart from having the potential to break or make reputations, why should marketers take the phenomena of fake news seriously? It’s not new. The art of telling a story people want to believe has always been around. Ensure a scintilla of truth, defend a position or back an aspiration; then place it with trusted sources to propagate. The practice has been used as a propaganda tactic for years.

Fake news trumps traditional sources

Whilst post truth, as it is also known, isn’t new, some things have changed. Social sharing sites, particularly Facebook, are now the gateway we use to access news. Many of us click and share without fact checking, and newsrooms covering the stories unwittingly give them credence. This has allowed fake news to thrive. So much so, the EMEA VP of Facebook acknowledged its danger and announced a reporting feature that will first be trialled in Germany.

The populist public mood also has its part to play. Driven by a divisive political atmosphere, suspicion and uncertainty are rife. Trust in the establishment, business and traditional media is now so low, when Gove told us Britain has ‘had enough of experts’ the barriers to fake news plummeted. In such a polarised climate we share news to validate our views. And, with the credibility of experts successfully undermined our core influence comes from like-minded friends.

A crisis of trust is not looming it’s here

For businesses, addressing the ‘trust crisis’ is a must. Edelman surveyed more than 33,000 respondents across 28 countries for its 2017 Trust Barometer. It’s worth the unnerving read and reveals the largest-ever drop in trust across the institutions of government, business, media and NGOs. Quite simply people have lost faith in our core institutions and in businesses to behave fairly.

So is it all doom and gloom? We know that CEO credibility dropped 12 points globally to an all-time low of 37 percent and, trust in traditional media fell drastically in 17 countries. Yet there are some positives. Trust in search engines has risen four times in a row and there is a slight rise in trust of online only media such as bloggers. We can also assume peer-to-peer influence is resilient given the traction of fake news.

Become an agent of change

These aren’t the only thought provoking revelations. Trump is a powerful reminder that we need to read, anticipate and react to the public mood. By becoming an agent of change with a few simple key messages to validate peoples’ views, he won their trust and empowered them. They loved him for it, and loyally shared content supporting his campaign and their pain, regardless of its validity. Essentially, his audience and technology enabled success.

Can we learn from this and rebuild trust in Business with minor tweaks to how we work? Currently we drive fee-paying lead generation activities hard over multiple channels, sometimes valuing style over substance and quantity over quality. Sensational headlines, rafts of not always useful content, neglected SEO, PPC, aggressive remarketing and fast user journeys don’t always leave room for the customers’ voice.

Win customers’ trust and validate them

By showing customers they are not only valued but we share values, we can rebuild trust. Most of us have examples of ethical practice with customers and employees and can show responsibility to social and environmental causes. Running these emotive elements through the heart of our communications strategy, the fulcrum of all marketing activity, can only make lead generation stronger.

Why? We know perceived brand integrity brings resilience to poor customer reviews, and weakens underhand competitor tactics. And, if like Trump our advocates can do the hard work for us, we can spend time strengthening our search engine reputation and influencer campaigns. Social strategies that deliver conversational engagement, responsiveness to customer reviews, and strong relationships with bloggers are all about peer-to-peer influence. And that is what will help convert leads and stimulate referrals.

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